Philipp Djang has competed in and won far too many swimming races to count over the years.
The 64-year-old Las Cruces resident holds a Masters world record in the 50-meter backstroke and came into this week’s National Senior Games with a long list of event records attached to his name. Backstroke is a particular strength for Djang, who held NSGA records in the 50-, 100- and 200-yard distances – each of them in three different age divisions.
Still, Monday offered a first.
Thanks to a change in the usual NSGA format, Djang saw one of his records broken while also establishing a new one – all in a single race.
How might this happen? Race officials opted to pit some of the top qualifiers from different age division against one another in the final heat of the men’s 200-yard backstroke at West Mesa Aquatic Center. Arizona’s Kevin Dickson won the heat in 2 minutes, 3.23 seconds and bettered Djang’s age 50-54 record set in 2009. Djang finished third overall in the heat in 2:20.18, but that was good enough to top Steven Heck’s age 65-69 standard of 2:25.79 from 2015.
Athletes are placed in divisions based on what their ages will be as of Dec. 31. Djang, who moved into the 65-69 division this year, was the second-oldest swimmer among 10 in his heat.
“They usually don’t mix age groups like that,” Djang said, “but I guess they wanted to make it more competitive. That’s OK. Kevin Dickson broke one of my records but he’s a very nice gentleman, and that’s what records are for. They don’t last forever.”
Djang, who was born in Los Angeles and moved to Las Cruces in 1963, said competition is only a small part of what’s drawn him to six National Senior Games over the past 12 years.
“I have swimming friends here from around the country,” he said. “There are lots of mini-reunions. These games are a a celebration of life, they really are.”
Djang said he is competing this year in honor of his mother, Grace Djang, whose health won’t allow her to attend in 2019. She previously participated in ballroom dance, race walk and talent show events and inspired her son to expand his horizons beyond the pool.
“Well, I’ve done triathlon, racquetball and comedy,” Djang said. “I told some really bad jokes and finished third out of three – but I got a medal.”
Swimming is more serious business to Djang, who competed for Las Cruces High and Southern Oregon University before going on to earn a master’s degree and PhD in engineering at New Mexico State. He spent 36 years working with the Army, part of that time as a senior operations and research analyst at White Sands Missile Range. Djang was involved in developing an electronic device to detect roadside bombs.
“It’s helped save lives,” he said. “You have to feel good about that.”
Working with the Army also helped motivate Djang to stay physically fit and competitive. He swims and works out with weights five days a week.
But 54 years of swimming have also exacted a toll. He’s cutting this week’s race schedule short because of knee issues, though Djang still plans to serve as a volunteer and support his friends, including a New Mexico contingent that stood poolside cheering him on Monday.
Djang already has enjoyed a successful run at this year’s National Senior Games. He established a new age-division record in the 100-yard backstroke Sunday before holding his own in 200-yard record book Monday.
Not bad, right?
“Tell that to my knees,” Djang said. “I’ll probably still race the 50-yard backstroke, but that’s it for this year. For me these games are not as much about the competition as they are about fun and friendship. That’s why I keep showing up.”
Click here for updated medal standings and results.